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Detroit Food Academy teaches kids far more than mangos on a stick

Students from the Detroit Food Academy.
Jen Rusciano
Detroit Food Academy

It started with mangos on a stick.

In the spring of 2011, kids at a high school in southwest Detroit were challenged to use their entrepreneurial spirit to come up with a creative way to get their classmates to eat some fruits and vegetables.

After more than 300 mangos were sold, the groundwork for the Detroit Food Academy (DFA) was laid.

Jen Rusciano, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Food Academy, joined Stateside to talk about the program, along with Brandon Johnson, who recently graduated from Cody High School Medicine and Community Health Academy. Johnson participated in the Detroit Food Academy and is now a junior facilitator.

There is a lot of ways that we emphasize confidence and creative thinking that go far beyond just the kitchen

Today, the program can set up kitchens in just about any classroom. Students make food and learn important skills that apply to many different areas of life.

Rusciano points out that while DFA does quite a bit of cooking, it’s not a culinary school. It’s a youth leadership program.

“We think food business is this great vehicle that really invites young people to have an idea and see it through, but those skills translate into any industry, any personal project that you might want to take on,” said Rusciano. “It really is how do you have a vision? How do you bring values into it? How do you ask how it impacts people and planet in addition to profit, which is our triple bottom line business model.

“There is a lot of ways that we emphasize confidence and creative thinking that go far beyond just the kitchen,” she added.

The program starts in the kitchen, with making a variety of foods that people enjoy, while also learning the business side of the food they make.

Students from the Detroit Food Academy.
Credit Jen Rusciano / Detroit Food Academy
Detroit Food Academy
Students from the Detroit Food Academy.

“At Cody [High School], we made pop tarts and we were selling them to the kids in our school, but they didn’t know they were healthy pop tarts,” said Johnson. “So they basically taught us supply and demand, like when you make it, you still have to make a profit off of being able to sell it. So basically, the business part was more getting you ready to be able to sell a product.”

DFA is already in 10 high schools throughout Detroit, but it's looking for ways to expand.

“We’re always looking to grow, we always have more interest from schools and students than we can meet,” said Rusciano. “I think the opportunity to gather around food and to cook and to invite people in who have knowledge and a connection to the food community, that’s open wherever you are … and I really think food is such a powerful tool for touching on everything from health to identity to history to what we want to see built in the future.… I do hope other schools would want to implement a similar model.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about DFA, including a summer program where kids take their products to local farmers markets.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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